Sunday, June 6, 2004

Nation mourns loss of Reagan

40th U.S. president dies of Alzheimer's complications

By Cindi Andrews, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and Terence Hunt, The Associated Press

[IMAGE] Former President Ronald Reagan waves to a crowd during a visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., July 15, 1997. He died Saturday at age 93.
(Associated Press photo)
Ronald Reagan, the president who battled Communism and big government while leading the nation with a genial optimism, died Saturday at age 93. A native Midwesterner, Reagan's close ties to Greater Cincinnati, an early and steadfast political stronghold for him, range from his days as a General Electric spokesman to at least 10 visits in the 1980s to Hamilton County.

"We all mourn the loss of an extraordinary leader who revived our spirits and restore our self-confidence as a nation," said Gov. Bob Taft, an active supporter of Reagan's Ohio campaigns. "It's an opportunity for us all to be grateful for his leadership that came at a very important time."

Surrounded by family, Reagan died at his California home after a years-long struggle with Alzheimer's disease. The family had turned to making funeral arrangements, a friend of the family said.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said President Bush, in Paris, was notified of Reagan's death about 4:10 p.m., EDT, by White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, who learned of the death from Fred Ryan, Reagan's former California chief of staff.

The U.S. flag over the White House was lowered to half staff within an hour.

Reagan's body was expected to be taken to his presidential library and museum in Simi Valley, Calif., and then flown to Washington to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. His funeral was expected to be at the National Cathedral, an event likely to draw world leaders. The body was to be returned to California for a sunset burial at his library.

Bush planned to participate in D-Day ceremonies in Normandy today and then fly back to the United States for an international economic summit in Georgia. A spokeswoman said it was not known if Bush would change his travel plans because of Reagan's death.

Five years after leaving office, the nation's 40th president told the world in November 1994 that he had been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's, an incurable illness that destroys brain cells. He said he had begun "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

Reagan lived longer than any U.S. president, spending his last decade in the shrouded seclusion wrought by his disease, tended by his wife, Nancy, whom he called Mommy, and the select few closest to him. Now, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are the surviving ex-presidents.

Although fiercely protective of Reagan's privacy, the former first lady let people know his mental condition had deteriorated terribly. Last month, she said: "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him."

Reagan's oldest daughter, Maureen, from his first marriage, died in August 2001 at age 60 from cancer. Three other children survive: Michael, from his first marriage, and Patti Davis and Ron from his second.

Reagan, whose appeal to blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" as well as traditional Republicans gave him powerful appeal locally and across Ohio, visited Greater Cincinnati three times during his 1980 campaign.

"He was very popular here in Ohio," said Eugene Ruehlmann, former Cincinnati mayor.

Reagan's local stops ranged from Lebanon's Golden Lamb Inn to Procter & Gamble's Ivorydale plant. On one visit, he ate LaRosa's pizza; twice he called Pete Rose to congratulate him on hitting milestones.

"The most impressive thing about him was his constant air of optimism about the world and about the United States," said William J. Keating, former congressman and former Enquirer publisher. "I think that optimism sort of rubbed off on everyone."

Gov. Taft ordered flags in Ohio to be flown at half-staff.

Flags at Great American Ball Park were also lowered Saturday evening as fans arrived for the Expos-Reds game. Fan Julie Bedford of Covington said Reagan was the greatest president.

"I absolutely adored Ronald Reagan," she said. "He's the only person on earth that I would have ever liked to have met."

There was a moment of silence for Reagan before the singing of the National Anthem at the park. As president, Reagan had accepted an invitation to throw out the first pitch for the Reds' 1981 Opening Day, but was victim of an attempted assassination less than two weeks before the game.

Over two terms, from 1981 to 1989, Reagan reshaped the Republican Party in his conservative image, fixed his eye on the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communism and tripled the national debt to $3 trillion in his single-minded competition with the other superpower.

Taking office at age 69, Reagan had already lived a career outside Washington, one that spanned work as a radio sports announcer, an actor, a television performer, a spokesman for the General Electric Co., and a two-term governor of California.

At the time of his retirement, his very name suggested a populist brand of conservative politics that still inspires the Republican Party, including many Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Republicans.

He declared at the outset, "Government is not the solution, it's the problem," although reducing that government proved harder to do in reality than in his rhetoric.

Even so, he challenged the status quo on welfare and other programs that had put government on a growth spurt ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal strengthened the federal presence in the lives of average Americans.

In foreign affairs, he built the arsenals of war while seeking and achieving arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.

As president, Ronald Reagan had accepted an invitation from the Reds to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day in 1981. But less than two weeks before the game, Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. and was unable to make the appearance.

He would have been the first active president to toss the first pitch for baseball's oldest team.

Former president George H.W. Bush threw out the first pitch at Great American Ball Park in 2003, and Vice President Dick Cheney performed that duty this year. President Richard Nixon threw out the first pitch at the All-Star game in Cincinnati 1970.

In his second term, Reagan was dogged by revelations that he authorized secret arms sales to Iran while seeking Iranian aid to gain release of American hostages held in Lebanon. Some of the money was used to aid rebels fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua.

Despite the ensuing investigations, he left office in 1989 with the highest popularity rating of any retiring president in the history of modern-day public opinion polls.

That reflected, in part, his uncommon ability as a communicator and his way of connecting with ordinary Americans, even as his policies infuriated the left and as his simple verities made him the butt of jokes.

"Morning again in America" became his re-election campaign mantra in 1984, but typified his appeal to patriotism through both terms.

At 69, Reagan was the oldest man ever elected president when he was chosen on Nov. 4, 1980, by an unexpectedly large margin over incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Near-tragedy struck on his 70th day as president. On March 30, 1981, Reagan was leaving a Washington hotel after addressing labor leaders when a young drifter, John Hinckley, fired six shots at him. A bullet lodged an inch from Reagan's heart, but he recovered.

Four years later he was re-elected by an even greater margin, carrying 49 of the 50 states in defeating Democrat Walter Mondale, Carter's vice president.

Kentucky Democratic congressional candidate Nick Clooney, like Reagan a former entertainer and media personality involved in politics, said Saturday: "His remarkable life was a great American story. He served his vision of America with steadfastness and an unfailing sense of humor.

He showed uncommon courage in his pursuit of the highest office in the land and he was there to preside over the beginning of the end of the Cold War."

He and Ohio U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican, spoke admiringly of the Reagans' public discussion of Alzheimer's.

"His candor about Alzheimer's disease not only helped raise awareness of the disease, but it also lifted up Alzheimer's patents and their families in a way that hadn't happened before, enabling them then to also begin talking openly about the diseases," Voinovich said.

Enquirer reporters Dan Klepal, Kevin Kelly, Patrick Crowley, Justin Fenton and Meagan Pollnow contributed.

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